A report by Nina Siegal for Blouin Art Info.
When the Van Gogh Museum curator Maite van Dijk was on a business trip in Japan recently, she made sure to ask everyone that she met in the art world the same question: “Have you, by any chance, seen this painting?” She would take out a photograph of an oil on canvas depicting two women seated on the ground with a basket, and man standing beside a tree, under a bright azure sky.
“Pres des cases” (Near the huts) was painted in 1887 in Martinique by Paul Gauguin, and the artwork was last seen at an auction in 1979, where it was sold to a private collection in Japan. It is one of only 17 paintings that the Post-Impressionist artist is known to have completed during a six-month stay on the Caribbean island that year, during a sojourn with his friend, the fellow painter Charles Laval.
The Van Gogh Museum is mounting the first exhibition dedicated to Gauguin’s Martinique period, “Gauguin and Laval in Martinique,” from October 5, 2018, to January 13, 2019. In trying to assemble all the artworks that Gauguin made on the island, its researchers have discovered that some of the key paintings from this period are nearly untraceable.
“I’ve never been working on an exhibition where it’s been so hard to trace works,” said Van Dijk in an interview in Amsterdam. “Gauguin is a very well-documented artist and normally because there’s a very complete catalogue raisonne the work is not that hard to find.”
Because Impressionist and Post Impressionist art is so popular amongst the public, a great deal of it has been acquired over the years by international museums, or by private collectors who share their work with the public. That makes it quite easy, most of the time, for Van Dijk and curators like her to at least locate, if not loan, works for exhibitions such as these.
The Van Gogh Museum also has extra leverage in acquiring works for temporary exhibitions, because, in addition to the world’s largest collections of Vincent van Gogh artworks and letters, the museum’s permanent collection contains many works of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art collected by Vincent and Theo. Other museums are typically more than willing to loan works to the Van Gogh Museum, because it has a great deal to offer in exchange.
Eight of the 17 Martinique paintings were easy to locate in public collections — two of them, in fact, were in the Van Gogh Museum’s own permanent collection, part of the foundational donation from Theo and Vincent’s personal trove. Nine seem to have been privately owned, and one, known only from a black-and-white photograph taken in the 1950s, seems to have been lost to history.
Late last year, the Van Gogh Museum took the unusual step of advertising in Apollo Magazine and the Art Newspaper, with images of four missing Gauguins and one missing Laval work, using images from the catalogue raisonne, asking for any tips about their whereabouts. Soon after, they did manage to find two of the advertised works, but not as a result of the ad. One of the Gauguins was discovered through the museum’s contacts in Asia, and the Laval was found using a Google Image search, which indicated that the painting was sold at a bankruptcy auction in Palm Beach, Florida.
They still haven’t been able to find three Gauguin works. “Nobody knows where they are,” said Van Dijk. This is unusual for Gauguin’s work, because his overall oeuvre is mostly housed in museums, she explained. The Martinique period is something of a “blind spot” in art history, because it was a short period of his artistic career and museums tend to be more interested in his work from the French Polynesian island of Tahiti, which he visited twice before he settled down there from 1895 to 1901, nearly a decade after the Martinique sojourn, painting (sometimes controversial) idyllic primitive scenes of young women on beaches.
Gauguin’s Martinique paintings were a precursor to his later Tahiti works, presenting something of an idealized vision of a colorful, tropical paradise, and images of local women at work, beaches and palm groves. One of the unusual aspects of the group of works that Gauguin completed in Martinique is that many of them have ended up in private collections, rather than in public museums which might be more willing to loan works, especially with the promise of an exchange of paintings from the Van Gogh.
Van Dijk is fairly certain that the work, “Pres des cases,” a very colorful image, is still somewhere in Japan. The Gauguin catalog raisonne states that it was sold at a ParkeBernet Galleries auction in May 1979 to a private Japanese collection. A French art history book published in 1990 by Jean Loize, “Comment le peintre Paul Gauguin fit une merveilleuse decouverte de la Martinique,” (How the painter Paul Gauguinmade a marvelous discovery of Martinique) mentions that the work was owned by the Suita Trading Company, based in Tokyo and Kyoto.
But Suita, according to Van Dijk’s research, went bankrupt and it’s unclear what happened to the artworks it once owned. “When a company is dissolved in Japan there’s a lock down and all the possessions go into a vault until the disgrace of the bankruptcy is over,” she explained. “I’m still trying to find out what kind of company it was and where the works might have gone from there.”
In fact, it’s quite possible that the Suita company reference may be inaccurate — she hasn’t been able to confirm it through any other source. So Japan could, in fact, be a dead end, but Van Dijk still has a hunch that it hasn’t left the country, because she suspects it would’ve surfaced by now if it had.
Another painting that’s on the “lost” list is “Porteuses de fruits a l’anse Turin” (Fruit carrier on the Turin beach). The last time this painting was on display was in 1989 at the Grand Palais in Paris, and until 1992 it was sold into an unnamed private French collection, according to the catalog raisonne. “I’ve asked all the big Gauguin dealers and they don’t know,” said Van Dijk. “For some reason this is a mystery.”
A third missing painting, “Scene Martiniquaise au manguier” (Palms and Gourd Tree), an image of a grove of palms and gourd trees with goats and a goat herder, hasn’t been on public display since 1955 at the Kunstnerforbundet in Oslo. The catalog raisonne lists it as sold from the collection of Baron Edmond de Rothschild in Geneva to private collection at some point after 1965. But that’s where the trail ends.
“It is an absolute mystery where this work is,” said Van Dijk. “Supposedly it was in an American collection during the early nineties.”
One of the four that were originally missing, “Little Washerwoman,” was found with the help of the museum’s connections. While Maite was in Japan visiting the National Museum for Western Art in Tokyo, with the curator responsible for the prints and drawings, she asked her usual question: “Have you seen this painting?” The curator seemed to have a vague recollection that the work might be in Taiwan. Van Dijk then contacted a curator at the National Museum in Taiwan, who put her in touch with the collector who currently owns the work.
“Little Washerwoman” will now be loaned to the exhibition. Van Dijk is hoping that the remaining three works will pop up sometime between now and October so that they can present as close to a full set of the Martinique paintings as possible.
“There is a crucial minimum number of paintings that you need to have, but we’ve passed that number already, definitely,” she said. “We’ll never be able to show the complete series but to understand how certain sketches are connected to paintings, to get a kind of chronology about how he went around the island and how he worked while he was there, it would be nice to have as many as we can.”